Friday, March 6, 2009

Getting Sick Over Health Care

Dr. AIG Will See You Now

Remember the old Jack Benny bit? A crook sticks a gun in Benny’s face and says,
“Your money or your life!” Jack mulls. “Well?” the crook prods. “I'm thinking,
I’m thinking,” says Jack.

I watched a bit of Obama’s White House health care confab. It made me sick. The key subject seemed to be how to ensure cooperation between the private and public sectors to, as they say in Washington, contain costs. Yes, as everyone agrees, health care costs are spiraling out of sight. And that will take us broke.
In every other first world country health care is a public service like police or fire. People who get sick go to a doctor or a hospital. Their taxes pay for it. That’s it. Here in America when people get sick they have to check with a financial company that decides whether their treatment will unduly cut into its profits.
In those other countries the purpose of health care is to keep citizens hale and hearty at a reasonable cost to the nation. In the U.S., the health care system is designed to make money for those who invest in it. As the saying goes, those investors are not in business for their health, let alone ours.
The goal all private enterprises share is to grow larger and increase profits. The health industry has been amazingly successful at this. When I was born just before World War II in St. Clare's, a non-profit Catholic hospital in Hell’s Kitchen, health care amounted to a tiny two or three percent of our economy.
Today it’s up to 17 percent and wants to grow even more. It has long since topped manufacturing and is now increasingly a component of FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate), our biggest and least stable economic sector. The exhorbitant premiums we pay to insurers don’t make us any healthier. They go to investments in derivatives and other exotic forms of debt and to pay ridiculous salaries to their execs (you may recall the controversial billion buck compensation package for William McGuire of United Health).
Inviting these companies to a White House conference on expanding health care and limiting its costs is like inviting Jeffrey Dahmer to a cookout.
People who claim belief in capitalist competition are oh so careful to avoid mentioning the fundamental supply and demand equation at the heart of health care. Let’s call it the Jack Benny calculus. For all but Benny, the demand to stay alive and healthy goes without question. Who would not give all to avoid death or debilitation? Thus, by capitalist logic and morality, those able to supply the demand for life and health by way of medical services are entitled to charge all the traffic will bear. And they do.
Society cannot meet such prices. The rest of the first world avoids them by taking health out of the market and making it a public responsibility. Here in America we learn to live with them. Since all but the wealthiest individuals can't afford them, our government and private employers pay the obscene amounts demanded by the financial companies and their confreres in the health business. When their stranglehold become unbearable, we try to reduce it through greater efficiencies such as those being touted by the White House. The prices and profits of the providers remain sacrosanct and untouchable. Indeed, we're now giving them even more billions to cover their bad debts.
The economic crisis has given Obama a magnificent opportunity to rationalize health care by eliminating the discredited financial parasites who feed off it. He has merely to ask Americans if they want the AIGs and United Healths to remain responsible for their life and death? He has merely to ask whether America should consider the time-tested, practical and money-saving example of every other first world country and remove health care from the commercial realm and turn it into a public service like police and fire?
But that remedy was not on the agenda at the White House meeting. Some of its proponents were invited to show Obama’s sense of inclusiveness, but went unheeded to affirm his loyalty to the FIRE flacks with which he has surrounded himself.
As I recounted in an earlier blog (The Heart of the Matter, June 18, 2008), I had a cardiac angiogram in Paris for which I was charged $1,300 by the French state. Had I been a citizen of that nation, I would not have paid a penny. That same procedure in the U.S., which I underwent on a half dozen occasions, was billed between $16,000 and $25,000, depending on whether a stent was inserted.
The difference between the amounts charged by the French and by Americans is the difference between a healthy society and a sick one. So far, Barack Obama, despite his splendid bedside manner, doesn’t seem much interested in narrowing that chasm. Tante pis.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Indulge This

Not So Simple Simony
Among the attributes shared by Vegas and the Vatican are that both are built on hope and hot money. Vegas promises the chance of winning down here while the Vatican offers its payouts up there.
As countless Mafia movies have taught us, Vegas was originally realized by mob moolah, particularly the Cleveland crowd. Since then, of course, publicly traded corporations have taken over--if that’s any improvement. Apart from The Agony and the Ecstacy, there are not many films about how my one time neighborhood church of St. Peters got put up. Though few Catholics choose to linger over the fact, the holy truth is that St. Peter’s and the Vatican complex were largely financed by sinful samoleons, or as Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible dubs it, filthy lucre.
It was Pope Julius II who back in 1506 commissioned Bramante to design St. Peter’s and hired Raphael and Michelangelo to superintend the job. The money for the work, which went on for a century, came from the sale of indulgences, “thereby lighting the match that ignited the Protestant Reformation."*
An indulgence, according to a recent front page New York Times story is “a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife.” By crossing your heart or certain palms you can procure pardon or parole from Purgatory, a place unmentioned in the bible that Catholics hold to be a sort of over-heated waiting room where the semi-sinful are temporarily relegated on the way to either paradise or perdition.
Back in the olden days, Rome marketed indulgences like reverse time shares. You could knock a day, a week, a year, etc., off your purgatorial detention by making the proper prayers, penances, pilgrimages and certified good works, such as quitting your “attachment to creatures” (presumably falling love with your livestock).
But business being business even in the late middle ages, the profitable possibilities of selling indulgences caught on big time. Lots of priests and princes paid popes for the privilege of peddling them. And from those tainted funds came the capital to construct St. Peters. The selling of indulgences and the corruption of the clergy was given a name: simony. This was after Simon Magus, who offered Jesus’ disciples some sugar for their horses if they would grant him power to impart the holy spirit to others.
At any event, all of this chicanery so enraged Martin Luther that he started a new religion, Protestantism, which eventually gave us mushy white bread, churches with neon marquees and NASCAR fans who’d like to share a beer with George W. Bush. In reaction, the Vatican did its best to massacre the Lutheran heretics in the Holy Wars and, when that failed, cleaned up its act a bit by outlawing pray for pay in 1567.
So, you may ask, with our economy evaporating and our empire expiring, why bring up this well toasted history after 400 years? It’s that story in the NY Times I mentioned above. It said that the Church of Rome is recrudescing indulgences in line with a general march back into medieval obscurantism decreed by the current pope, who, if you recall, was only a Hitler Youth, not a Nazi. The official reason for the return of indulgences is said to be the continued presence of sin in the world, which would seem to me to be an admission that after 2000 years the mother church has yet to get the job done .
I hate to be cynical (not), but it strikes me that the church’s finances are in a parlous state due to having to pay for all that priestly pedophilia for all those decades. They surely calculated that a revival of the discredited indulgence game will not help their bona fides but might bolster their bottom line.

t shouldn't be hard to revive such clerical cozening e
ven though the passing of filthy lucre has been banned since 1567. Simony never really stopped but merely slowed. Indeed, its outstanding practitioner in the modern age was the late Mother Theresa, who counseled the poor to suffer in silence while swapping benedictions for bucks with the rich and reactionary (consult Christopher Hitchen’s factual and funny The Missionary Position for all the profane poop).
Not that I’m against all indulgences. I’ve long been a fan of San Francisco’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whose good works include sponsorship of an annual Hunky Jesus competition in Dolores Park.
* Lives of the Popes by Richard P. McBrien, p. 272